Best Bets For Volunteer Waterfowling

Nowadays to take ducks in Tennessee, you've got to do your homework. (Nov 2006)

Today's waterfowler has to be so much more than a hunter who stays put and waits on ducks and geese to come to him. Duck hunting has gotten tougher over the last decade or so, and taking limits is as hard as rolling out of bed in the cold dark on consecutive days of slow hunting.

Regardless of predictions and flight forecasts, if you want to be successful, you have to get out in the field and do some major hands-on research. Combining that homework with existing Internet contacts and cellular communications with fellow hunters in Tennessee and surrounding states is key to tracking duck movements.

Let's take a peek at this waterfowl network and recent hunting trends on big waters and worthwhile small waters to see what you can expect this season. Volunteer ducks and geese are where you find them. In these modern times, taking ducks means doing your homework: Scouting and watching the weather pays off.

AT FIRST LOOK

In late June, the May Pond Survey that gives biologists and duck hunters their first solid idea of what to expect in fall flights wasn't due to be available until mid-July. Mike Checkett, Ducks Unlimited's Conservation Communications Specialist, said the USFWS May Pond and Breeding Pair count had not been released and typically comes out around July 9. With that knowledge, he said it's very early yet for speculation on the upcoming season frameworks, regulations, fall flight and hunting opportunities.

Checkett was able to provide the most recent habitat information from DU's Canadian and U.S. Great Plains biologists. Reports said the month of May was generally dry across the northern Great Plains and water levels in most wetlands receded. Excellent habitat conditions remained present in the eastern Dakotas and early nesting efforts by waterfowl in that area have been strong and successful with mallards, pintails and Canada goose broods being commonly observed on wetlands by late May.

The Missouri Plateau in South Dakota and in southern and central North Dakota remained very dry, with poor wetland conditions for breeding waterfowl. Habitat conditions were good for waterfowl in Minnesota, northern Iowa, much of Montana, northern Colorado and eastern Nebraska. Waterfowl production outlook was good in this large area. However, June rains were needed on the northern plains to trigger re-nesting efforts and to maintain attractive brood-rearing habitat.

The late spring habitat conditions in Canada as of mid-May had improved in southern Ontario and in the southeastern interior of British Columbia. Conditions in many parts of Alberta were better than were previously expected. Those reports led biologists to say waterfowl production should be particularly good in southwestern Manitoba, the parklands of Saskatchewan and the southern and eastern regions of Alberta this year.

OF PREDICTIONS AND RUMORS OF PREDICTIONS

Doing what I do, I am fortunate to get to spend plenty of time outdoors and that time includes many a morning in a duck blind all over much of the country. When it comes to duck hunting, even though there are the complainers that wonder why the ducks don't dive bomb their blinds every day of every season, there is one common thread that I've found from town to town and blind to blind. Duck hunters truly like to be out there.

I'm not saying dedicated deer hunters and turkey hunters, of which I claim to be, don't enjoy what they do just as much, but there does seem to be some strange appeal associated with duck hunting that I haven't found just everywhere. It's a combination of factors. It's the rolling out of bed at 3:30 a.m., it's the pre-dawn breakfast at the local hangout, it's the cold boat ride to the blind, it's putting out decoys in the last of the darkness, and it's about spending time in a duck blind with an old dog, a good friend, or your son or even father.

I said all that to say this. For most hardcore duck hunters, fall flight predictions and forecasts are just that: predictions. Quality time in a duck blind or boat doesn't come from the duck head count at the end of the day. It's the time spent, the experience gained, and the knowledge that you can come back and do it again tomorrow morning. Now, throw in a limit or two of greenheads, a pair of black ducks, a pintail, and even some teal or other feathered friends, and it's all the better.

REELFOOT LAKE

The sounds of echoing shotgun blasts in the distance signaled that shooting time had arrived at Reelfoot Lake. A few seconds later, a wad of green-winged teal cleared the trees dipping their wings toward Billy Blakely's blind in his duck hole back within the friendly confines of one of the lake's many sloughs. The teal rose back up just above the decoys as they made their way away from the blind's thundering volley of gunfire, but they were missing a few from their ranks. Seconds later, his cell phone rang as surrounding blinds were letting each other know what was moving.

That's a typical start for a morning's duck hunt at Reelfoot Lake, where the last couple of duck seasons have also signaled a revival of waterfowling there. Last season was better than the one two years ago. Things get going a little earlier at Reelfoot than the rest of the state, with the opener coming normally the second weekend in November. That's when Blakely said the lake is loaded up with gadwalls. On this opening weekend, Blakely said weather really isn't a concern. He said the gray ducks or gadwalls are going to be there and hunting usually turns up blind limits. You may pick up a local mallard, but they'll come later in the season when the heavier migration begins.

The late duck season at Reelfoot opens up the first weekend of December and gets better as it goes. The bag limits then usually include a scattering of a little bit of everything from guaranteed mallards to gadwalls and green-winged teal.

For Blakely, the weather in December does matter. He wants to see small cold fronts come through coupled with clear days and northwesterly winds. The bright, clear, cold days are mallard days on Reelfoot. Once the ducks arrive, the decoys and a little calling do the rest.

"You need all the help you can get," Blakely explained. "Every little advantage helps."

Reelfoot decoy spreads, whether you're hunting an open-water blind or back in the sloughs, call for numbers and plenty of them. Blakely will put out a mixed bag of dekes to attract the mixed bag of ducks he shoots. His spread always includes many mallard decoys, black dekes, a ton of gadwalls and plenty of teal look-a-likes. Blakely said he really likes the appeal of Avery Super Magnum decoys because of their detail and high profile. Incoming birds can really pick up the magnum decoys in the sun.

Public huntin

g is also allowed at Reelfoot from many of the scattered lake accesses. There are two means of doing so. Blakely said anyone can hunt out of one of the registered blinds if the permit holder isn't in there by shooting time. Your other option is to hunt out of a boat blind, but remember the rules state you have to be more than 200 yards away from any of the registered blinds.

To say last season was a comeback at Reelfoot would be an understatement. They were killing birds when others were wishing for them. I'm glad I had the opportunity to witness some of the great gunning. Blakely said he took 1,222 ducks from the blind in his hole last year. They were mostly mallards what everyone is banking on with quite a few other species in the mix. On my last trip, we bagged greenheads, green-winged teal, gadwalls and some stray woodies.

KENTUCKY LAKE

As the darkness gave way to daylight, a pair of divers skidded onto the water well outside the farthest decoy and just out of killing range. Later, the prettiest bluebill I've ever seen would soon be headed back to a Georgia taxidermist with the hunter who bagged the bird.

Divers are only one of the duck options while hunting Kentucky Lake with guide Garry Mason. Mallards rule the day, but also in the mix are gadwalls, a selection of divers, and the occasional black duck. Like the remainder of the state the last two years, duck hunting opens up for the weekend after Thanksgiving at Kentucky Lake. And Mason said those last two November holiday weekend openers have been really good. The lake usually sees an early flight of ducks in that time frame. Many of the birds in the limits of successful hunters will be fast-flying ringnecks and bluebills.

Mason said the November opener could produce as many as 20 to 25 ducks on excellent hunts. On the best day last year, he took nine different species from his blind, including mallards, ringnecks, bluebills, widgeon, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and gadwalls.

With the December opening weekend, attention turns to migrating mallards, but they're usually not alone either. Mason said any kind of northern push from Alberta to Minnesota will send ducks down the Mississippi Flyway. What you don't want are the big cold fronts with hard freezes that send the masses all at once. Small cold fronts are best, and having weather alerts on your computer or even cell phone is a plus.

One of the things Mason noted about hunting on Kentucky Lake is the double migration that they sometimes get. Cold weather sends ducks south, and warm December days may send them back up to the region from Louisiana. The ducks aren't migrating back north, they're just escaping too warm of a climate farther down the flyway. They'll hit the bountiful refuges along the Tennessee River and move around in search of feeding spots and in response to scattered fronts until they head back south. These warm spells followed by little cold fronts are some of the best times to take a Kentucky Lake limit.

"I'm going to try to go every day whether I need to go or not," laughed Mason. Once the late hunt is in full swing, he said there are days you limit out, and others that you don't. The key is being there. Mason said you'll pick up good numbers of mallards in early December, it'll slow down, and then you'll pick up new flights as the season goes along.

There's also good public hunting on and around Kentucky Lake. Mason said there is always good shooting to be had somewhere on the Big Sandy WMA or the Camden Bottoms WMA. Like the Reelfoot situation, you can hunt the draw blinds at the WMAs if the cardholder isn't there by the time legal shooting hours arrive.

If you do hunt someone else's drawn blind, Mason said it's a good idea to practice good blind etiquette. Never leave anything you brought, including trash, and never take out anything that was already there. He said you can find an access ramp to the Big Sandy WMA right off Highway 69A and two or three ramp accesses to the Camden Bottoms WMA along Highway 70.

You'll want to consult the TWRA's 2006 Tennessee Waterfowl Hunting Guide for exact regulations, including permit information on each WMA. At many WMAs and as at Reelfoot, legal shooting time during the season closes at 3 p.m. You can also walk into some of the WMAs and set up temporary blinds at least 200 yards away from permanent blinds.

Decoying Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River usually calls for large numbers. Mason will normally use a spread of mixed decoys up to 300 or more. He utilizes mostly puddle duck decoys, including wood duck dekes, in the first part of the season. Mason also likes to put 50 or 60 goose decoys along the edges of the duck decoys if for no reason other than to boost the confidence of any incoming ducks.

EASTERN CANADAS

Last days of the season hunts are usually a gamble. But not when you're relying on Canada geese in the form of East Tennessee residents.

Last season, J.R. Adkins hit his goose Knight & Hale goose call one more time and the final pair needed to finish two limits of Canadas slowed and then dropped out of the sky. It was their final flight.

Adkins, a Knight & Hale and Redhead Pro Staffer, said last spring featured a good hatch of resident geese in the eastern reaches of Tennessee, and he can't wait for the goose opener.

How can Adkins not like the wide-open goose hunting found in the early seasons? Perhaps, it's just a little too easy to some extent. That's why he prefers the late-season goose hunting to the early portion, even though you can only kill two geese per day compared with five per day on the early hunts.

By the time the late season arrives the first part of December, Adkins said the birds have heard all the normal sounds. It's now time to separate the men from the boys and work in many more laydown calls, clucks, groans and growling. He said not to get too fancy, just realistic. Late-season calling is just more technical. Adkins said the calling and shooting isn't as easy as it was when you were taking juveniles early in September.

Adkins said 95 percent of goose hunting success is good scouting. His main objective is to hunt geese in fields adjacent to water on rivers, ponds and lakes. Locating roosting and resting areas is the key. Once you roost the geese, scout them to see where they're feeding for a morning shoot. After they eat, they'll head to nearby water to rest and digest their meal with some grit and gravel. Adkins said if you locate geese resting on water in the late morning, they'll be near their food source and offer you an afternoon hunt.

You won't find Adkins in a permanent blind or even in some makeshift ground blind calling geese. He does all of his goose killing from an Avery Finisher layout blind and will never go back. He said the advantage to a layout blind is its total concealment. It affords the hunter the opportunity to move while calling or reaching for his shotgun. And when you come up for the shot, you're ready and not wrestling with a piece of burlap.

Adkins said the other key to hunting geese with the late two-bird bag limit is to hunt small flocks. You

don't want to educate a huge flock of geese for just two birds. Late in the year, you don't usually get the big flocks anyway, so decoy spreads can be kept small and natural looking: Three to four dozen will do. Again, realism is what you're looking for, and you get it with full-body goose decoys enhanced with Higdon Motion Decoys on the edges of the spread.

DESTINATION INFORMATION

To hunt Reelfoot Lake with waterfowl guide Billy Blakely, call the famed Blue Bank Resort at (877) 258-3226. The atmosphere there as well as the food spell duck hunting.

To hunt Kentucky Lake with waterfowl guide Garry Mason, call him at (731) 593-5429 or visit the Web site at www.legendsoftheoutdoors.com. Plus, the breakfast at Lillie Dee's Restaurant is as good as the duck hunting that follows it.

You can catch up with Knight & Hale and Redhead Pro Staffer J.R. Adkins doing seminars at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Sevierville.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.